Being Search Boxed To Death

When talking about using specialty or "vertical" search engines, I often like to use a toolbox metaphor. If you want to drive a nail into a piece of wood, you reach for a hammer, rather than a screwdriver. Use the right tool, and you'll get the right results.

The same is true with search engines. General purpose search engines are wonderful tools. You can search for entertainment, news, sports, company and many other types of information and still often find what you are looking for. Like a Swiss Army Knife, general purpose search engines often can do many different jobs. Nevertheless, your results might be better if you turn to a vertical tool.

This may be the year that the general purpose search engines finally figure out a way to get the right vertical tools into the hands of their users. They've tried before, but some new efforts might succeed where we've previously had failure.

For some time, general purpose search engines have offered their own vertical tools designed to specifically fulfill particular types of searches. For example, do a search on AltaVista, and the results page has little "tabs" above the search box intended to direct you to the proper search database, such as shopping search, image search and news search. In 1998, Lycos had a drop-down option right next to its search box, so that you could choose from 11 different types of search options, including weather and stock quotes. At iWon, there are currently four different search choices below the search box on the home page.

The problem is, search engine users generally gravitate past all options and head straight into the main search box, as if it was a black hole pulling them against their will. For the most part, they don't make use of selections in drop down boxes or links to vertical search tools, when presented.

"We've got these tabs up there today, and no one clicks on them, so we might pull them," said Ganon Giguiere, senior director of search verticals at AltaVista.

Moreover, give users too many options, and they can feel overwhelmed. I think it was someone from Inktomi I spoke with who once called this "death by a million search boxes," and I like to paraphrase that as being "search boxed to death." How can search engines offer specialty search options without these being ignored by users or considered clutter that gets in the way of the "real" results.

Let's take AltaVista as an example of what not to do. The home page was recently simplified, which attracted praise for taking AltaVista back to its "pure" search roots. But our memories are short. AltaVista's last major face-lift, in July 2000, was expressly touted by the service as having been designed to show AltaVista's re commitment to search.

The problem was, the changes of last year put too much on the home page. There were links to practically every type of search offering AltaVista had. It looked like a mess. It certainly didn't look like a search engine. To no surprise, when AltaVista eliminated the clutter last month, suddenly praise appeared that it was a search engine again, even though nothing had changed under the hood!

I agree -- the cleaner look IS better. You need no further evidence of this than the fact that AltaVista's education and government specialty search tools have suddenly been discovered by some users in the past weeks. They've been accessible from AltaVista's home page since they launched way back in October of last year. Unfortunately, they weren't easy to spot and had some absurd URLs that no one would think to bookmark. Now, you can go to one single URL and find them.

I'd like to see more of the vertical search services offered by the major general purpose search engines made available through standalone web sites. This makes it easier to direct people who specifically want these types of services. For example, need image searching? No problem -- go to That's much easier than saying, "Well, do a search, then look for wherever the Image tab has moved to this week on the AltaVista results page, then click on that to get image results."

What about the majority of searchers who still walk the same familiar road to the main search box. AltaVista's now experimenting with integrating referral links directly into the search results, in a way that I hope other search engines will try.

Search for "dvd players" at AltaVista, and you'll see that the first link above the numbered results says "Compare Prices and Features on DVD Players" and leads to its shopping area. Now, the shopping search could be improved, but at least it is relevant to suggest visiting the shopping area for this type of search. Moreover, users are probably more likely to follow links that are in the main results list, like this link, rather than scattered elsewhere on the page.

AltaVista's market testing backs this up. It tested both the "Consumer Electronics" link that you'll also see on the results page versus the Compare Prices link that I've described. Since the Compare Prices link looks like a regular listing, usage was more likely, testing found.

"The results have been tremendous. Forty-four percent said they would click on the Compare Prices link and only 17 percent said they would click on the other," Giguiere said.

This is a lesson MSN Search knows well. Its redesign at the end of last October ensured that all the main information on the results page was numbered, regardless of whether the link was an editor's pick, an MSN vertical property, a directory listing from LookSmart or web page matches from Inktomi. In part, this change was made to encourage users to try preselected links that might be helpful to them.

The real Holy Grail in all this will be when search engines can detect the type of search we are doing and feed out more targeted results from appropriate databases. Search for a current news topic, and it may be that the majority of the main results will be pulled from the news database automatically, rather than from the main web index.

We're not there yet, but the idea appears to be moving forward. If you think back to last September, AltaVista announced that it was going to be a "third generation" search engine. It was this automatic blending of vertical and regular search results that they were referring to, and the first delivery on that promise has come last month with the integration of shopping links. More vertical links are coming, with news being the next in line.

Google has also been doing this integration with news headlines, stock quotes and even dictionary links. For example, a search for "bridge collapse" brings up a link to an article about the recent bridge disaster in Portugal. However, unlike AltaVista's shopping links, users might overlook this news headline link at Google because it doesn't resemble the "normal" search results that they fixate on. That could change, in the future.

"I think that we can certainly improve that service quite a bit, both in terms of the amount of information we show and tweaks in terms of really showing it to people when it is relevant," said Google president Sergey Brin.

Inktomi pitched a "Search Everywhere" slogan in the middle of last year, with the idea that they would provide specialty search databases (such as news and multimedia search) to portal partners and go the further step of making results from the right database appear when relevant. In addition, this slogan was also a reference to Inktomi's goal of integrating enterprise and intranet searching with web searching, where appropriate. The company says it plans to deliver some advances in search blending over the coming weeks.

There are two things to fear from the blending that's underway. First, the search engine may not always correctly guess when we want results from a specialty search source -- or they may select the wrong one. Fine-tuning and offering guidance on the results page, within the main listings area, should help with this.

Second, search engines may try to provide too many vertical links that redirect into their own content areas or to partner sites rather than to what we really want. Users will still appreciate some variety in their results, and if all routes lead into "walled garden" areas that the search engines operate or have a stake in, then their users may seek less controlling resources.

Blending Vertical Results & Other AltaVista Improvements
The Search Engine Report, March 5, 2001

More details about the search blending that's happening at AltaVista.